Rocky is a Left Brained Introverted horsenality. He is a master of the subtle and not so subtle dominance games. My earlier blog posts described some of his more obvious dominance tactics in the early stages of our relationship. The obvious tactics were easier to recognize and develop effective responses than the subtle dominance tactics.
The Level 2 program devotes a lot of time to developing communication skills and a strong relationship with your horse. Rocky and I spent countless hours of undemanding time together so that Rocky would learn he didn’t have to constantly challenge me. I took him for grazing walks, both on line and at liberty. I sat or stood in the pasture with him while he grazed. I worked on the fences and cleared brush near him. I enjoy star gazing and would spend the evening hours just sitting on a barrel in his outdoor paddock. Rocky needed to know it was OK to be around people without constantly challenging them with his dominance games.
Horses have an innate ability to read one another’s body language and learn to use the most subtle body language to communicate with one another. An important part of developing my relationship with Rocky was learning to watch Rocky closely so I could distinguish between his normal body language and the subtle clues to a dominance challenge. Christi Rains called Rocky’s subtle tactics “Did you Notice?” during our Level 2 training lessons.
What is the game of “Did you Notice?” It is the subtle game played by a dominant horse who wants to be in control by always making the last move. While we were building our horse – human partnership, I had to earn Rocky’s respect and this meant I had to learn to play and win his “Did you Notice?” games.
When I first started learning the Parelli natural horsemanship games, Rocky would just barge back into my space after I sent him backward. As I developed effective phases in Levels 1 and 2 to let Rocky know he had to stay out of my space, he became far more subtle using the game of “Did you Notice?” to sneak back into my space. I had to learn to recognize the various forms of his “Did you Notice?” challenges and respond effectively to earn and maintain his respect.
In the early days of our relationship, Rocky’s subtle sneaking forward often put him within biting range. Rocky would bend his knees like he was stretching and then he would move his front feet forward just a half of a hoof or so to test the waters and see if I noticed. If I didn’t respond, he would continue to move forward until he was in my space. This was a respect issue we had to overcome in our relationship.
I used these phases to respond to his actions: Phase 1: a stern look. Phase 2: small motions with the lead rope, carrot stick, or my hand Phase 3: vigorous motions with the lead rope, carrot stick, or my arms Phase 4: marching toward Rocky using the carrot stick as a barrier to define my space.
When I started learning to respond to Rocky’s “Did you Notice?” games, the sequence of events would be a continuous loop of Rocky moving forward after every task and me escalating my response through the phases until he backed away. After a task, Rocky would begin by moving his front hooves toward me; I would give him a stern look and advance through the phases until he moved his front hooves back to their starting position.
Building a relationship with a horse like Rocky requires focus and commitment. One of my biggest challenges with the “Did you Notice?” game was that Rocky did this constantly until we were about half way through Level 2. For every task we did, he tried to end the task with one final movement toward me. It was exhausting to respond to these continuous challenges. I had to learn to organize our activities and find a positive way to end each task with me being in control instead of Rocky. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic formula for this. I had to learn by trial and error as Rocky and I built a good relationship and learned to respect one another.
One technique that worked for us was using the sideways game as a positive way to end our activities and training sessions. Sideways is a game Rocky enjoys. I learned to send Rocky sideways at liberty early in our Level 2 program. The sideways game helped reduce the “Did you Notice” challenges because Rocky couldn’t move forward toward me if I wasn’t in front of him.
Mirroring exercises also helped me understand Rocky’s emotions and body language. Mirroring involves following the body language of your horse, using the same pace as your horse, and then subtly taking over the lead so that the horse begins to mirror you. Christi Rains teaches mirroring as a way to bond with your horse and develop a stronger relationship. Mirroring helped me separate Rocky’s normal body actions from the indications of a challenge to me.
Rocky is a typical Left Brained Introvert who gets bored easily and is constantly thinking about challenging me. The subtle game of “Did you Notice?” seems to be a lifelong check to determine if there is an opening to move up the hierarchy in the horse herd. Rocky still plays this game with me almost every day. When Rocky tries to inch a front hoof forward, I give him a warning look that says I noticed the hoof advance. After the hoof retreats, Rocky may continue with an even more subtle move. He will lean forward with his head and front shoulders while keeping his feet still. I just give him another look that says I noticed and the “Did you Notice?” game is usually over for the day.